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Monday, October 4, 2010

Guest Author Post: Cinda Williams Chima "World Building 101"

Fantasy Book Critic is excited to have Cinda Williams Chima stop by for a guest blog spot. Cinda Williams Chima is the author of the series The Heir Chronicles and The Seven Realms Series. Book Two of the Seven Realms series, The Exiled Queen was released this past month.

A big thank you goes out to Cinda Williams Chima for taking the time to visit with Fantasy Book Critic.


World Building 101 by Cinda Williams Chima

World-building is the business of all fiction writers—whether we write mainstream, literary, historical, romance or fantasy fiction. Writers build a world, lure readers into it, and endeavor to keep them there.

However, we tend to associate “world-building” with fantasy and science fiction, because those stories often take place in worlds vastly different from our own. Fantasy worlds include “supernatural” elements, inconsistent with the laws of nature as we know them.

High fantasy requires more world-building, because those stories are typically set in a long-ago-and-far-away quasi-medieval setting, which can require a lot of ‘splainin’ and scene blocking. That’s one reason that fantasy novels tend to be longer than mainstream fiction—it takes time and space to create fantastical landscapes and describe magical systems.

My first fantasy series, The Heir Chronicles, is set in a well-defined contemporary fantasy world. I called it “Ohio” (oh-hi-yo.) It turns out that Ohio is familiar to many people already. Except for people who live in LA and New York City who have flown over Ohio but have never actually landed there.

My new series is high fantasy, set in the mythical Seven Realms. I created this world for The Star-Marked Warder, an adult high-fantasy trilogy that I never finished. So when I began to write The Seven Realms quartet, much of the world-building was already done. I had a history, I had some smoldering conflicts, I had a magical system, characters, and a clash of cultures.

I even had a map.

Now, I am cartographically challenged. Drawing any kind of a map is a struggle for me. But I found I really needed one when writing the story so I wouldn’t get lost in the landscape. It helped to keep me oriented, and to prevent impossible things from happening, like people going south and ending up in the north.

Here is the map I drew.

And here is the map drawn by the cartographer my publisher hired.

For some people, a map represents a descent into the abyss of high fantasy. One of my Heir Chronicles fans was not happy when I admitted that my new series involved a princess and a thief. It seems she felt much more comfortable in the Midwest.

“I just know I’m going to open up the book, and there’ll be a map on the flyleaf.”

Well, yes.

Other people feel differently. One reviewer contacted me about The Demon King, which she’d just read in ARC form. “I need to know—will there be a map in the final book?”

“Yes,” I said, cautiously.

“Good,” she said. “Otherwise, it would have to be reflected in my review.”


Magical Systems

Magical systems are part of the world-building in fantasy. There is a continuum in fantasy magic from the subtle (e.g., clairvoyance and charisma) to the extreme (transfiguration, for example, changing a prince into a frog.) I tend toward the more subtle forms of magic. Even though my wizards can conjure up magic powerful enough to destroy the world, no lamps are being turned into cats.

In my magical systems, magic is a kind of energy that changes the state of matter. This no doubt reflects the week I spent in high school physics.

One thing I’ve learned--in order to have story, you must have conflict. In order to have conflict, magic must have limits. If your viewpoint character is all-powerful, then he can solve any problem. And that’s not good for story.

Here are some common rules and limits on magic:

· Magic is costly: magic drains the practitioner or causes pain or damage or requires expensive materials

· Magic requires tools: performing magic requires an amulet, a wand, ring, a special cloak, or a spellbook that isn’t always available or can be taken away. For example, wizards in the Seven Realms series produce “flash”—magical energy, but they need to save it up in amulets in order to accumulate enough for use. Unfortunately for wizards, amulets are made by flash-crafters among the Clans, the upland tribes who have been squabbling with wizards for more than a thousand years.

· Magic is difficult: it requires considerable learning prior to use, with intricate spells, diagrams, etc. Small errors can have dire consequences

· Magical beings have weaknesses: vampires can’t go out in the daylight, or can’t cross water, and faeries can’t abide iron, and Superman is vulnerable to Kryptonite

· Time limits: magic can only be done at certain times of day, times of the year, in the full moon, etc.

Finally, in building fictional worlds, remember that they are always based on our own. Readers connect and relate to people and magical characters whose motivations, emotions, talents and flaws are understandable. When readers ask me if Trinity, OH or the city of Fellsmarch are based on real places, I say, “Of course.” But maybe not one particular place.

That’s the magic of it.

The Demon King is now available in paperback, and The Exiled Queen released September 28. There will be four books in the Seven Realms series, followed by two more Heir books.

Excerpts from each of my books are available on my website, Help for writers can be found under Tips for Writers, including a document called, “Getting Started in Writing for Teens.”

I blog at, where you’ll find rants, posts on the craft of writing, and news about me and my books.


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